Trio of reissues showcases a powerful voice
The Best of Sam Cooke – 5 stars
Night Beat – 4 stars
Live at the Harlem Square 1963 – 5 stars
Sam Cooke was a brilliant songwriter with a knack for concise structures and deceptively simple lyrics; a sophisticated arranger with a strong intuition for dynamic melodies and countermelodies; and an ambitious businessman who was touring, managing a label and planning his movie debut when he was killed in 1964. All these sides of Mr. Soul are present on these three reissues: the ridiculously good The Best of Sam Cooke, the moving blues/soul album Night Beat, and the surprisingly raucous Live at Harlem Square 1963.
Despite his considerable array of talents, Cooke is best known for his voice—and rightly so. He sounds supernaturally smooth and seductive, with a mellifluous tenor that’s effortlessly and confidently expressive, and hasn’t lost a bit of its resonance four decades after his passing. Still, it’s a little strange to hear Cooke, with his perfect control and precise enunciation, sing rough-hewn songs like Howlin’ Wolf’s gutbucket blues number “Little Red Rooster” (from Night Beat) or even Gershwin’s “Summertime” (from The Best of Sam Cooke). But it’s hard to deny his commitment to the songs or the power of his performances.
Live at the Harlem Square 1963, recorded in North Miami, still surprises with its frenetic, unchecked energy, as Cooke roughs up both his voice and pristine pop gems like “Feel It” and “Twisting the Night Away.” His backing band, led by saxophone player King Curtis, had barely even practiced together before taking the stage, and they sound like they could fall apart at any moment—they nearly lose it on the first chords of opener “Feel It”—but this only adds to the album’s precarious and exciting spontaneity. Cooke engages the audience directly, keeping up an almost constant chatter and exhorting listeners to reconnect with the songs emotionally. For all its exhilaration, Live proves bittersweet: it documents Cooke still developing his delivery and hints at all the incredible music we lost when his voice was silenced.